When I used to work at a domestic violence shelter and I’d take calls on the hotline, it would take the caller some time to be able to find the words to tell their story. The word I waited to hear was “control.” Once I heard that word I knew we were talking about a relationship that was inequitable and that she had reached the right hotline. From there I could help her find her way to talking about other unfair interactions that were happening in the relationship and, ultimately, she’d be able to share how she was being physically or sexually abused. Control is a type of abuse. It fits under the category of emotional abuse, but as women have often said to me, “the bruises and scars heal, the emotional wounds don’t.” Control is the undercurrent of all abusive behaviors. The abusive partner uses control as a manipulation to get their partner to do the things he wants and for her to act the way he would like. The trap of control is that there isn’t any real way to get it right. We can’t maintain an act for someone else for too long especially when the rules are constantly changing.
Because control falls under emotional abuse, we can safely consider it a traumatic experience. In relationship our emotional safety is paramount. Part of the unspoken contract in relationship is that I will take care of your heart and you take care of mine. When a partner uses controlling tactics, that contract is broken and the woman on the other end is left feeling confused, hurt, anxious and sad. And from that place of emotional turmoil she will oftentimes turn the blame and ultimately the shame on to herself. She will try to figure out how to make him happy and she will notice that the harder she tries, the less likely she’ll be able to hit the mark of his expectations. She circles round and round in an effort to try to get back to the euphoria of the first few days of the relationship, finding herself constantly disappointing him and herself.
Control can look differently for each woman experiencing it, based on the differing dynamics of the relationship. Oftentimes women report that it started with what she was wearing. Her partner would comment on a skirt that he thought was too short or a top he asked her to change because he was worried about other men getting ideas because it showed too much of her breasts. Women also explain that their partners would complain about certain friends and how he didn’t approve of some friend for various reasons. Controlling behaviors will scaffold culminating in the isolation she experiences when she finds she’s burned bridges on all her friendships. The abusive partner is clever in his efforts because he is able to find what may be a flaw in the friend or an insecurity the women has about how she portrays herself to the world. The truth that he finds rings loudly for the woman and drowns out the feelings of discomfort she may be beginning to feel.
Sometimes a woman doesn’t know she’s being controlled until she has the perspective of hindsight and can look back and put all the dots together. Once those dots have been connected, she notices the horror show that was her life. If she is able to leave, this is just the beginning. Abusive men consider their partners more as possessions than they do partners. They can be quite possessive of the woman and the relationship and the untangling can be painful and drawn out. Additionally, the confusion and the fog created by the ongoing manipulations take time to clear from the mind of the freed woman. She may be free in that she no longer lives with him, but the emotional abuse has left her with a battered sense of self that takes time and support to regain.
The good news is that you’re out!!! Let’s say that again as it cannot be understated. You are out!!! You have made the most paramount decision to take care of yourself now – and for your continued wellbeing. Let’s consider some concrete steps you can take to help you continue to move away from control and closer towards freedom:
1 – Keep Firm Boundaries
An easy way for an abusive ex-partner to remain in control of your life is for you to continue to say yes. Once you say yes to one thing, he will consider that a foot in the door and if he has a foot in the door it won’t be long until he has his whole damn body in the bed! No is a complete sentence and as harsh as that may sound, no may be the thing that keeps you the safest and keeps you on the path towards your goal of being free of the abuse.
2 – Use Clear Language
If you have to communicate with him, be sure to keep it short and to the point and be on the lookout for traps he may be setting to get you to agree to something that you’re not willing to or interested in doing. No is powerful language but there will be moments when you have to communicate over children or property in common and you’ll need more strategy. You’ll need to be able to say what your needs are without getting in to an argument. He will be looking for meaning between the words so be clear in your message.
3 – Keep the Emotion Out of It
This, I will admit, is probably the hardest of the steps. Showing up without your emotion is not like showing up without your purse, it’s showing up without your clothes! We can’t really show up without our emotion, but with practice we can find ways to handle the interactions we have to have with our former partner as more of a business than the intimate relationship it used to be. Treat it like a transaction at the bank. If the teller at the bank attempts to control you, you’re not likely to give in to his or her demands. You’re more likely to ask for the manager and handle things matter of fact. You can fall apart after the interaction, but be careful that he doesn’t find a crack in your emotional armor.
4 – Know that He Won’t Change
It is unlikely that he’ll change. It’s highly unlikely that he’ll change. He’s not gonna change. Here’s a way to consider the idea of him changing. How likely are you to change your personality? I consider myself and honest and direct person. If someone told me I had to start lying to stay in a relationship, I wouldn’t do it. More importantly, I couldn’t do it. There are some things, even lots of things, we can change about ourselves but who we are and how we fundamentally relate to the world is near impossible.
5 – Utilize a Buddy System
This is tough stuff to do on your own especially in the beginning when you haven’t developed the skill set to live on the other side of control. Find one person in your network who may be willing to give you the emotional support you need. Show up for them too as often as you can so the relationship doesn’t become a drain. If you have to go to see him or have a phone conversation, ask your buddy to go with you. There’s so much strength to be gained from a friend.
6 – Seek Out Support
Most towns and all major cities have a domestic violence agency that provides support that may include outreach, educational and supportive services as well as safe, confidential shelters if you need a place to stay. You can go to or call these places and you can expect to be treated with dignity and to have your story be heard. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence has a hotline 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE) that can direct you to your local agency. In Asheville the local agency is Helpmate and their hotline is 828-254-0516. Sometimes the most powerful thing a woman can do in the aftermath of this type of abuse is to sit in a support group and know she’s not alone.
If you think you may be in an abusive relationship or have left one and need support to maintain your boundaries call for a free 20 minute consultation 727-643-5594.
Lydia Kickliter, LPC
Let's chat about this topic or anything else that may be on your mind.